By Earl Hendry
We have just returned from a very enjoyable and educational weekend in Monterey, Tenn., which is located high on the western rim of the Cumberland Mountains in Middle Tennessee. Your Tennessee Heritage author was invited as a featured speaker in the Putnam County community’s annual Standing Stone Festival, covering the history of “General John T. Wilder and the Lightning Brigade.” The subject was, of course, our own Civil War Gen. Wilder — of Tweetsie Railroad, Roan Mountain and Cloudland Hotel fame.
Last Saturday an enthusiastic crowd conducted an extended question and answer period of John F. Lee Jr. of Williamson County and your author. Mr. Lee is a retired architect and his father was raised from the age of 12 by the general and his second wife, John’s great-aunt, Dr. Dora Lee Wilder. Reprinted below is the first installment of a long, unpublished, but fascinating article penned by John Lee Jr. about this extraordinary couple and his father’s life as a boy with them in Knoxville and in Monterey, where Gen. Wilder established his last hostelry in 1909, the Imperial Hotel. Unlike the general’s lavish Cloudland Hotel atop The Roan, the Imperial was built as a commercial hotel alongside the Tennessee Central Railroad in Monterey, where it still stands today. Here then is a word portrait of Gen. John T. Wilder and his little-known doctor-wife that none of us has ever seen before:
My Aunt Dora
By John F. Lee Jr.
In searching for my Great Aunt Dora, I have used family records, memories, feelings and emotions. Our family told her story bit by bit while sitting around the parlor table with a kerosene lamp in the hotel farmhouse. She was head of my father’s side of the family always calm, unemotional, practical and reasoned. Most problems were met with “well let us see.” I never saw her mad or discourteous. She was not weak; once a decision was made, she was strong and determined.
Dora Ethel Lee was born March 8, 1877, in Bull Creek Township, Madison County, North Carolina. Her father was John Walker Lee born May 22, 1937, in Rutherford County, North Carolina; and her mother was Mary Drucilla Deck born April 19, 1841, in Poor’s Ford, Polk County, North Carolina.
Mary Deck had refused an offer of marriage from John Walker Lee and married a John Blackwood. The couple moved to Madison County, North Carolina, where they soon had a son, John Belt Blackwood, in 1860. When her John Blackwood was killed in the Civil War, Mary returned to Polk County. She made sure to attend the church where John Walker Lee worshiped. Since this church was a good distance from her home, she would walk barefoot until in sight of her church, sit down, put on her shoes, and continue. The war had made shoes scarce and expensive, so she was afraid they would wear out. Soon John Walker Lee proposed again, and they moved to Madison County to the farm of her first husband.
The family had three children: Elizabeth [known in the family as Betty]) born January 1, 1868, in Polk County, North Carolina, and Plato H. born September 17, 1790, in Raysville, Madison County, North Carolina. Dora Ethel Lee, born seven years after her brother, was very fond of him; and he, also of her. They would always remain close.
The land in Madison County was too hilly for good farming so life was difficult. In the early 1800s, John Walker was able to obtain employment as overseer for a large tract of land with a hunting lodge owned by a wealthy New York lawyer, a Mr. Curtis, located in Alexander, Buncombe County, North Carolina. The family was given a six-room log house with a dog trot. The girls lived in the room above their parents with its own staircase and the boy, above the parlor with its own staircase. The two upstairs rooms did not connect. This was the home that Dora had loved and remembered. Their father as an overseer raised their standing in the community and gave them a secure home. He was eventually able to become a magistrate.
In 1884, at age 16, Betty, Dora’s sister, married Nathaniel Kelsie Brown against the wishes of her parents. The Lees thought that she was much too young, and that the Browns were not of their standing. The marriage lasted more than 50 years and produced 10 children.
In 1889 Plato was sent to the Medical Department of the University of Nashville in Nashville, Tennessee, to obtain a degree as a doctor. This was considered a great advance in the family. With degree in hand, he returned to North Carolina to practice medicine in Asheville.
In 1894 Dora was sent for three years to the Asheville Female Seminary, a finishing school for young ladies. Her parents thought this to be what a proper lady should do. While she was studying there, she became interested in the Episcopal Church and soon a lifelong Episcopalian.
Because of her close contact with her brother, she was having thoughts of nursing and medicine by the time she graduated. With Plato’s help and encouragement she began to take nursing jobs in Asheville which allowed her to see what nursing entailed and at the same time to observe what her brother was doing. Dora enjoyed talking with her brother about the medical profession. She soon knew that she wanted to do what he was doing. The problem was finding a school that would accept a woman and the money needed. She began to save her money.
Dora was nearsighted and wore glasses all her life from morning to bedtime. After she died, a trunk in the attic held many of the glasses that she wore during her lifetime. However, she did not consider her sight as an impediment to a medical career.
After much searching, she found that the University of Indianapolis Medical School in Indianapolis, Indiana, would accept women. She applied and was accepted for the fall class of 1892. Leaving Asheville with one suitcase she began her trip traveling alone, determined to follow her dream of becoming a doctor like her brother. Two other women were in her class. With one of these she would form a friendship that lasted all her life.
With the money she had saved, willing to nursing as much as she could, and with a little money her mother had received from the sale of a family farm, Dora thought that it would be possible to pursue an education to be a doctor. At one time this had seemed so impossible. Nursing proved to be compatible with going to school. Classes took place during the day, but nursing was needed 24 hours a day. During this time, one nurse was often assigned to one patient in the better hospitals and sanatoriums.
After her third year in medical school, Dora was assigned to nurse a Union Civil War General named John T. Wilder. He was in poor health, and the doctors had told him that he had no more than three years to live. General Wilder was soon intrigued by this determined woman who was becoming a doctor; and she, by his strong and confident character. They began to respect each other. In time their relationship became stronger even though there was a great difference in age. He was 74 and she 26. General Wilder began to suggest the possibility of marriage. He would respect her desire to become a doctor, would encourage her to pursue her education, and pay for her last year in school. Dora had never before received a proposal for marriage. In the early summer of 1904, she accepted and they were married in North Carolina. Her parents did not attend the wedding. Her father had served in the Confederate Army in the Civil War. After the marriage, Dora and General Wilder went to Alexander and Asheville to meet her family. In the family no mention was ever made of him being a Union general for 50 years or more. ..
(This look at General John T. Wilder and his wife, Dr. Dora Lee Wilder, will continue in the next two Tennessee Heritage columns.)